Welcome! This blog is inspired by the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve in Gardena, California.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Summer Pollinators and Butterflies

Surveying pollinators on native plants - Mother Nature's Backyard

It’s summer and the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve is literally buzzing with activity.  Butterflies and other pollinators are busily making nests, collecting food and setting up housekeeping.   Now is one of the best  times to visit the Preserve.  Whole families can participate in the interesting activities that take place this time of year.

Pollinators are butterflies, bees, flies and other creatures that pollinate the flowers of fruits, vegetables and other foods.  These plants can’t produce if they aren’t pollinated.    In fact, about 80% of all flowers require living pollinators; without them our lives would be less colorful, less fragrant – and hungrier.   We owe our pollinators a huge debt of gratitude.  

Recent visitors to Mother Nature’s Backyard garden (located in the Preserve) were amazed at the number of hummingbirds, butterflies and other insects visiting the flowers.   No wonder the garden and Preserve produce lots of native fruits and seeds!   The staff of Mother Nature’s Backyard can help you make your own home garden more productive by attracting native pollinators.   Just ask for suggestions.

On a recent Sunday, teams of ‘citizen scientists’ surveyed the pollinators visiting several native plants. Their results will be compiled to give us a better idea of important pollinators in local gardens.  Anyone who visits the garden from now through October can participate in the survey; just ask for a survey clipboard at the garden.    You can also take the survey at home (see http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/06/citizen-scientist-2013-mother-natures.html for details).

July is ‘Butterfly Celebration Month’ at the Preserve.  A great way to experience local butterflies is to take a butterfly walk with Tracy Drake (Manager/Naturalist, Madrona Marsh).   Ms. Drake will lead a butterfly walk on July 14th at 1:00 p.m.   You’ll see butterflies in their natural surroundings.  You will also learn how to capture butterflies without hurting them and get to photograph them up close.  This is a great activity for families.   Visitors will receive a handout with colorful pictures of local butterflies and a brochure on home butterfly gardens.

Learn more about pollinators at:


Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Season of Flowers

Enjoying wildflowers in Mother Nature's Backyard garden

Spring and early summer is the season of flowers in Southern California.  Nature preserves, wild lands and even native plant gardens often look their best this time of year.   Consider scheduling a visit to the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve in the next few months.  You’ll be glad you did!

The main wildflower show begins in March with the earliest wildflowers.  The annual wildflowers are at their peak in April and May, providing a riot of color from yellow and orange to pink, red and blue.  Mother Nature’s Backyard is awash with color now.   Place of honor goes to our California state flower, the California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica), which is blooming in several areas of the Preserve.

In May, the annual wildflowers are gradually replaced by the native Sages (Salvia) species.  Their purple, pink and white flowers – and spicy aroma – are worth a visit to the ‘Coastal Sage Scrub’ area on the South side of the Preserve.  Be sure to watch for hummingbirds and butterflies that are attracted to the flowers.   

In late May and June the Salvias are joined by the native Buckwheats (Eriogonum species).   With their masses of pink flowers, the Buckwheats are visited by many species of butterflies and native pollinator insects.    Plan a trip to the Preserve and Garden before the flower show is over for the year.    Be sure to bring your camera or sketchpad to capture the spring beauty.


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Native Honeysuckles for Natural Fences

The path leading into the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve features panoramic views of a seasonal stream that has fed the wetlands for hundreds of years.  Recently a group of local Girl Scouts from troop 5965 in Redondo Beach cleared the area to the north of the path and planted some local native honeysuckles.  These vines will soon cover the fence, providing a living green wall as visitors enter the Preserve.

Honeysuckles are woody vines or groundcovers.  While honeysuckles from Asia can be hard to contain, California native honeysuckles have all the advantages of honeysuckles without the invasive qualities.   Two native Honeysuckles once grew abundantly on the Southern Channel Islands and in canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains and the Palos Verdes Peninsula.  These two – the Purple Honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula) and Southern or Santa Barbara Honeysuckle (Lonicera subspicata) – are what the Girl Scouts planted along the entry path.

Honeysuckles are really sprawlers.  They climb up fences, trellises or other supports with a little encouragement.  In nature they clamber over other shrubs and trees.   They will also spread out on the ground and make an easy-care groundcover.   Honeysuckles have pretty fragrant flowers that produce abundant nectar.  That’s what attracts the hummingbirds (the main Honeysuckle pollinators) as well as the larger butterflies.  Children also like to sip the sweet nectar from the bottom of the flower!

Our local Honeysuckles have either cream-colored or pink-purple blooms depending on the species.  The plants bloom in spring, usually between April and June.   After that, the plants produce berries that turn bright yellow or red in late summer and fall.   While the berries are edible they are not very tasty; they are best left for the birds who enjoy them as a fall treat.    Small birds sometimes even nest in a mature  vine, so the new Honeysuckle wall should attract many types of birds and butterflies.

In nature, native Honeysuckles often grow in canyons where they get some afternoon shade.   The Preserve’s entry area provides similar conditions.   Once established, native Honeysuckles are very drought tolerant.  Volunteers will give the ‘Honeysuckle Wall’ occasional summer water to keep it green and lush.   They will also train the vines to climb the fence for the first year or two until the wall is established. 

Be sure to notice the ‘Honeysuckle Wall’ the next time you visit the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve.  The plants are small now, but next year you’ll marvel at the flowers, the fragrance and the wildlife they attract.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Troubles with Trash

The Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve shares a problem with other urban preserves and parks – trash.   Whether it blows in on the wind, is tossed over the fence or washes in with street water run-off, the end result is the same; either the trash is removed by volunteers or it ends up in the ocean.   Neither option is pretty.
The best long-term solution is to prevent trash from entering the wetland.  To this end, The Friends of the Preserve installed trash barriers along the streets bordering the Preserve. This low tech solution decreased the amount of blown-in trash.   But paper, cans and bottles still wash into the Preserve with every rain storm.    Much of this ends up in wetland areas that are difficult to access for cleanup.  

Some of the biggest problem areas are near the drainage pipes that release street water run-off directly into the Preserve. The plastic bags and other materials destroy peaceful views and are a hazard to ducks and other wildlife.   That’s why trash removal is an on-going part of Preserve maintenance.
Picking up trash in a wetland is not glamorous work.   It requires patience, good balance and a high tolerance for wet feet.   In January, a group of community volunteers (including students from the Gardena High School Interact Club) tried a new approach.  First they removed trash brought in by a recent rainstorm (see above).  And then they installed a fence-weir to trap trash and prevent it from entering the wetlands. 

The fence-weir is constructed of plastic coated welded-wire fencing material held in place by steel fence posts.  It  was installed in an area near new Hampshire Street – an area with significant street-water run-off.       Friends Board Member Kelley Dawdy worked with students determine placement of the fence-weir.    After pounding in the fence posts, students attached the fencing.    The result was a trash collecting fence that blends into the landscape except when filled with trash. 
A recent rainstorm tested the new fence-weir.   In short, it works.  The weir collected trash that might otherwise have polluted the Preserve and the ocean.   Now we just have to collect the trash from the weir and that’s a real improvement.  But the ultimate solution lies with all of us who live, work and enjoy the Gardena area.   It’s up to us to prevent trash from traveling down the storm drains and into our jewel of a Preserve.

February 11, 2013                    Constance M. Vadheim (Friends of Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve)

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Christmas Bird Count

On a rainy morning just before Christmas three women entered the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve, their binoculars, clipboards and cameras ready for action.  Tracy Drake, Heather Williamson and Connie Vadheim were participating in a December tradition that dates back over one hundred years: the Audubon Society’s Annual Christmas Bird Count.
 Each year since 1900,  tens of thousands  of volunteers from the Northern arctic to South America brave the cold, rain and snow to census local birds.   Working with local scientists and naturalists like Ms. Drake (Manager/Naturalist at the Madrona Marsh Preserve and Nature Center), local birders and citizen scientists canvas the number of species and individual birds in over 2000 count areas .    The counts are done each year between December 14th and January 5th. 
The date for our local Palos Verdes/South Bay Circle was December 23rd this year.  Count volunteers follow specified routes through a designated 15-mile diameter circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day. More than 60 volunteers visited over 50 sites all over the South Bay this year. The count is not just a species tally—all birds are counted all day, giving an indication of the total number of birds in the circle that day.  The results are tallied at the end of the day and submitted to the national bird count database.

Good ears, sharp eyes and excellent observation skills are required for the Christmas Bird Count.  That’s why volunteers are trained before they get to participate.  The count team records all the birds it sees, as well as those it hears.  If possible, the team also photographs unusual or rare birds that it encounters.  The Gardena team did all three; it quickly became obvious why a team approach is required.
American Crows and Mourning Doves flew over as the team entered the Gardena Willows Preserve.   A large flock of tiny birds (Bushtits) flitted through the trees, foraging for insects.  The team recorded a total of 64 Bushtits during their hour and a half survey, the most common species seen that morning.   Other insect-eating birds, including five species of Warblers, were busy feeding in the Willow and Cottonwood trees.   These large trees provide an important food source for insects and for the birds that feed on them.  

 A White-tailed Kite – a new raptor for the Preserve – circled above and landed on a nearby Willow branch.  The team paused and photographed this rare treat.  White-tailed Kites were almost hunted to extinction in California in the 1930’s.   They are slowly returning to our area – thanks in part local nature preserves and open areas.
Hummingbirds were busy feeding and gathering nesting materials throughout the Preserve.  A small group of Cedar Waxwings were gobbling down a preferred food – Toyon berries.   On the ground,  several Hermit Thrushes and California Towhees rustled in the leaves, searching for ground-dwelling insects.  The team did not see these elusive birds, but their distinctive call allowed Ms. Drake to identify them.  

In total, the team identified 30 species and over 275 individual birds in the Gardena Willows wetland Preserve and surrounding Johnson Park.    The count from the Gardena Site helped make the Palos Verdes/South Bay Circle one of the top 40 sites in the United States in terms of bird species and individual birds seen. 
According to the CBC Website, ‘the results of Christmas Bird Counts provide a powerful picture of our world over time.   Using data from over 40 years of Christmas Bird Counts, Audubon scientists learned that nearly 60% of birds that winter in North America have shifted their winter ranges northward over the past 40 years.  This is important evidence that our winters are getting warmer.’ 
The Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve continues to play a role in providing key data about our changing planet.  You can see results of previous bird and butterfly counts at  http://www.gardenawillows.org/ and learn more about the Christmas Bird Count at: http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count .

--posted by Constance M. Vadheim, Board Member, Friends of Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why Do We Prune?

Why do we prune in gardens and in the Preserve?  Some reasons are obvious.  Diseased or damaged branches need to be removed as soon as possible to prevent the spread of disease.  Growth that presents a safety hazard must also be removed promptly.    But we prune plants for reasons other than safety and health.

One reason is to shape them.   If growing a hedge, we prune out  irregular branches in the beginning and then maintain the shape by regular hedge-trimming.   Similarly, we remove branches that grow in the wrong direction when training a new tree to a pleasant shape.   Some local gardeners take plant shaping to a high level, creating elaborately shaped shrubs in traditional Japanese or European styles.   These examples demonstrate the degree to which certain plants can be shaped.

Gardeners sometimes prune to control the size of trees and shrubs, often with limited success.  In general, plants continue to grow until they achieve their natural mature size.  They will keep trying to achieve this size – or die in the process. That’s why pruning to limit size is an endless task.  It’s far easier to choose a plant with the right natural size in the first place.  This is particularly important with California native shrubs, some of which become quite large.   But choosing a plant based on its mature size makes sense for any plant. 

Southern California’s native trees, shrubs and even grasses need to be pruned for another reason – to keep them youthful and healthy.   Hikers sometimes comment that wild shrubs appear to be pruned by an expert gardener.  In a way they are, but the ‘gardener’ is not who you might expect.

In truly wild areas, deer, rabbits, elk  - even wildfires, wind and water - prune plants on a regular basis.   Deer and elk browse the fresh growth of trees and shrubs in spring and summer.  Rabbits eat grasses and smaller vegetation.    The plants respond by producing new growth.  If the plant is not over-grazed, the result is a plant that’s fuller, more youthful and more attractive to the eye.

Fires also play a role in plant regeneration.  In the past, wildfires burned local foothills and mountains every 50 to 150 years depending on the area.  Fires are a consequence of our long dry summers and Santa Ana winds.  This weather pattern also occurs in other mediterranean climates like the Mediterranean region, South Africa, western Chile and western Australia.  

Plants from mediterranean climates have adapted to fires over the course of thousands of years.   Many mediterranean climate trees and shrubs have the capacity to re-grow after fires, allowing them not only to survive but also to rejuvenate themselves.    In fact, these plants are so dependent on fire that they literally need periodic fires to survive.   Without them – or their surrogate in the garden - they die prematurely.

Native Californians understood the need for periodic rejuvenation.  In the past, they regularly pruned, divided and even burned plants to keep them young and productive.  Over time, Native Californians became an integral part of the natural cycles of plant life.  They literally became a force of nature.

Most gardens and smaller nature preserves are no longer home to deer, rabbits and other forces of nature.  Even the wind patterns and water flow are altered in populated areas.   But the native plants still need the yearly and occasional catastrophic processes that keep them youthful and healthy.  And that’s where proper pruning plays a role.

Like the deer and rabbits, we need to prune back some of the fresh growth on native shrubs to encourage dense, well-shaped plants.   Like the wind, we need to prune out weak and damaged growth.   And like fire, we occasionally need to prune mature native grasses and some shrubs more harshly.   We literally ‘become’ the deer, rabbits, wind and fire for the native plants in our care.

Pruning native plants is not difficult, but you do need to know how to prune each plant.   Prune a native plant incorrectly – or at the wrong time of year – and you risk damaging or killing it.   The trick is to imitate the natural processes.  Many of us have little direct experience with these processes in the wild.  That means we need to learn how to prune our native plants. 

One easy way is to attend a pruning workshop at Mother Nature’s Backyard or the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve.   The fall/winter pruning season is almost over, but we will have sessions in summer and again next fall.  See our schedule at http://www.gardenawillows.org/events.htm,   or call 310-217-0681.  Pruning classes are also given at CSU Dominguez Hills (see http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/calendar.html). 

For more information on pruning common California native plants see http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/2012/11/pruning-common-native-plants.html  or http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2012/11/pruning-common-native-plants.html    A great book which includes information on pruning is California Native Plants for the Garden by Carol Bornstein, David Fross & Bart O’Brien (Cachuma Press, 2005). 



Constance M. Vadheim  (Adj. Professor of Biology – CSU Dominguez Hills; Board Member – Friends of Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve)

Friday, November 16, 2012

An Ugly View or Source of Inspiration?


We’re restoring the south-western section of the Preserve to the native Coastal Shrubland that once covered Gardena.  Towards that end, we planted hundreds of locally native plants near the amphitheater last spring.  On the positive side, the new plants are thriving.  The shrubs have grown several feet;  many have already flowered and set seed.  Insects, hummingbirds and seed-eating birds flock to the area.   And a place that once was bare – with a few non-native weeds – is well on its way to being restored.   But restoration is a bit like remodeling: once the remodel is completed, the whole house looks shabby around it.   And herein lays our source of inspiration.

English Ivy (lighter green) covering a Black Willow tree

The Preserve’s amphitheater sits on a gentle slope overlooking the wetlands.  It’s a nice venue for teaching, thanks to an Eagle Scout project in 2009.  It’s also a great place to sit and relax after a couple hours of weeding.  But the view from the amphitheater could – quite frankly - use some work!  As seen above, a few large non-native shrubs competed with the native willows and other wetland trees.  The area was overgrown with non-native English Ivy (Hedera helix – the same ivy many people have in their yards) was literally invading, climbing high into the trees and threatening their existence.  The front area was bare except for some weeds, non-native grasses and an unsightly-looking dead branch.  In short, it was not the kind of view we wanted from the amphitheater.

Fortunately, our young and enthusiastic volunteers love a challenge.  Last month – as part of our regular restoration day on the 3rd Saturday of each month – a group of students from the Gardena High School Honor Society and the Circle K Club from CSU Dominguez Hills tackled the view from the amphitheater.  They came in on the ground floor of the restoration process - a process that begins with assessing the area and setting restoration priorities.

After preliminary discussion, we decided to explore the area before setting restoration priorities.    Here’s what we found:
·         The area has lots of potential – the riparian woodland area is pretty and could provide wetland access  close to the teaching amphitheater

·         English Ivy is a huge problem – more extensive than we’d realized

·         Natural pathways exist in the area, but these are overgrown

·         The non-native shrubs are large and will take some work to remove

Large ivy trunk growing up a willow tree

As a group, we decided that ivy removal was the first priority:  ivy was spreading and threatening the native trees - and the problem would only get worse if nothing were done.   As a first step we cut the trunks of ivy growing up into the trees.  It took some work just to find the ivy trunks, even though some were several inches in diameter and stretched 20 feet or more into the trees.    Several weeks after cutting, the leaves were starting to die making it easier to see the remaining ivy.  We’ll tackle that in the future.

As we cut ivy, we decided to prune branches that were making ivy removal – and access in general – more difficult.   The branch trimmings are now being composed in the form of a brush pile.  The pile is located near enough to be useful for teaching, but far enough off the trail to hide it.    The brush pile will provide a hiding place for birds and lizards, as well as food for decomposing insects, worms, bacteria and other organisms.    The decomposed material will also return nutrients to the soil rather than removing them to the landfill.  We’ll be getting years of benefit from the pruning we did to provide access.  Now that’s smart restoration!

Area after first work day - bare but much nicer appearance

At the end of the morning, we sat back and admired the view from the amphitheater.  We could already see improvements.  The area was less overgrown, some of the ivy was gone and the ‘ugly branch’ had been turned into an interesting bit of native landscape.   But the front area still looked plain and empty – and we wanted it to eventually look pretty and interesting.  We decided that the trees provided a nice backdrop.  But we needed plants in front of them.   And we needed to plan ahead so we’d be ready to plant when the rains came.

We worked together to build a list of the types of plants/plant characteristics we wanted to include in the area.  Here’s what we came up with:

·         More leaf & flower colors

·         Small bushy purple plant (if possible)

·         Focus on plants native to the Gardena area

·         Increase the diversity and number of plants – shrubs, grasses, flowering plants

·         Fruit trees (native)

·         Include signage/information

·         Flowers

·         Include plants found in other parts of Preserve – especially those in surrounding Coastal shrubland area – to make the area seem part of the Preserve as a whole

At our November work day we’ll review the plant choices and develop a plant list.  Our goal will be to plant at least part of the front area in December/January while still leaving access for our on-going ivy removal.   The new plants will make the area look better while we continue our restoration of the interior sections.

At the end of the day, our ‘ugly view’ turned out to be something lovely – a source of inspiration.  It brought together a diverse group of students (and one professor) to solve real-life restoration challenges.  Many points of view are leading to practical and creative solutions.    And that’s a beautiful thing indeed! 


We’ll update you with our progress in the future.